Personal Is Political / Race/Ethnicity

Whites Who Oppose Racism: Here’s How To Stop Doing It Wrong

In the tradition of my first very similarly-titled blog post on how to be a better anti-misogyny ally, I am simply going to copy/paste the privilege-conscious disclaimer portion of that entry here. Some other sections of this blog post are also copy/pasted portions of that same blog post, because a lot of what I had to say there applies here as well.

I’ve been working really hard for years now, to understand privilege and oppression, and how it plays into my own day-to-day life. The time has come, it would seem for me to try to share some of this knowledge. For the purposes of understanding where I am coming from, I am conscious that I am privileged in the following ways as an individual:

I was born in North America, and continue to live here. I live in first-world conditions with access to literacy, education, clean drinking water, and so on. I’ve got it pretty good, relatively speaking, just by having the exceptionally good luck of being born in North America.

I am a white person (my blood comes from all across Europe, not just the Northwest), who is also part Caucasian and part Jewish by ethnicity. The society I live in  assumes that whiteness is objectively superior to any other ethnic state of being. More on what that means in another post, but for the time being, this means that the default assumption is that if you’re white, you’re right. I’ve got it pretty good, relatively speaking, just by being born a descendant of Northwestern Europeans (on one side of my family).

I am college-educated, I have access to the internet, and my first language is English. I’ve got it pretty good, relatively speaking, because I can use these tools to communicate to the most socially privileged groups of people in the entire world. That means I have a voice, I can make myself visible, and I can try to access help from people who have it to give. I still struggle, but I’m alive today, and that’s more than I can say for untold millions of people who have been born and died in my lifetime, because they didn’t have these privileges.

You’re White (Me Too), You (We) Have White Privilege

I’ve written about what it means to be white in North America — chiefly, that it isn’t just a matter of being pale-faced. Well, part of the pale-faced flesh-package is being privileged because of it. Privilege, in its simplest terms, is the default state of being treated with favour by everybody in society, by legislation, by media, by governments, by the application of authority, and so on. This comes with a cost attached, but first, more about how awesome it is for you: one critical superpower of privilege is that you are, by default, blind to other people’s experience of oppression. When you begin to learn about it, you can just look away or completely avoid any actual hurt feelings/frustration/harm that is caused to the people who are treated lesser every day so that you and everyone like you can be treated so well. And that’s the cost part. You are not to blame for it as an individual, because like the ways I am privileged because of my geographic location and skin colour, you simply inherited it by virtue of the fact that you have pale skin. This is also not an accusation against you personally, of consciously perpetrating oppression against other people who are different (especially people of colour).

What I’m driving at here is privilege is as impersonal and apathetic a construct as oppression is. It’s a social force that doesn’t care if it hurts your feelings when, say, someone who notices it’s giving your car more horsepower starts yelling at you because they have to take the bus. Maybe their car broke down. Maybe they don’t even know how to drive and never owned a car before, despite working their ass off tirelessly from the age of 12. Maybe you two are driving alongside each other in the same car model, but the way privilege works, it’s like your car was built on a day when everyone was in a good mood, and they’re driving a lemon that was built on a Friday after everyone at the factory got handed pink slips. They may really want to get where you’re headed, but because you have so little melanin in your skin compared to them, they just keep getting a face full of smoke and a long walk back from the gas station with a jerry can or a bottle of fuel injector. You’ll pass by people who are in a ditch and wonder why they don’t just call a tow truck, or why they didn’t just drive inside the lines. Then you’ll roll your window down a little bit, get a refreshing blast of breeze in your face, and forget that pang of empathy you were just experiencing, as you push the pedal to the floor and move on with your own life.

Evidence that you are privileged because you’re white is evidenced everywhere. Because you’re a whitey, especially if you’re also a guy, your voice as an individual is among the most abundantly over-represented population within literature, mass media, governments, medicine, human history, economics, and the list goes on — especially if I get more specific. English (your language) is said to be the international language of business, so as a whitey, you can talk to a lot of important people. Because you’re a whitey, you are valued first and foremost for your intellectual capacities (even if you’re a well known racist bigot, but especially if you’re a guy). Because you’re a whitey, your potential isn’t just protected from being actively diminished by this inequality at the expense of racialized peoples’ oppressions. In fact, your potential is quite literally boosted because of your privilege. Even the view of the world from your eyes is the assumed default vision of all human beings (this is called white optics). When a person of colour is murdered in cold blood by someone with pale skin, we ask ourselves “Is this white person going to be brought up on charges of committing a hate crime?” instead of asking ourselves “Is it possible that racism played a role in this person’s murder?” And in the case of Trayvon Martin’s murder, everyone jumped all over any report about the shooter’s ethnic identity that referred to him as a white person. And when Shaima Alawadi was found murdered in her home, and a grassroots anti-misogyny photo campaign was started in her memory? People jumped all over that as trying to ride the coat tails of Trayvon Martin’s death. No one seems to draw a connection between a young Black man who was murdered because of what he was wearing, and a grassroots campaign to raise awareness that Muslim women actually choose to wear hijabs and other veils. And no one seems to acknowledge that Martin and Alawadi would still be alive if they were white.

The list goes on. The point is, evidence is everywhere, that whites inherited (and have) privilege, for the simple fact that they were born to Anglo-Saxon parents.

Saying “You’re Privileged” Is Not A Personal Insult

If I tell you, a fellow whitey, that you and I as individuals have social privilege, it’s not a personal insult against you (or a self-deprecating display of sarcasm). In fact, it’s quite literally not even an insult, considering what that means. So stop whining about it when someone calls you (or me) on it. What they are trying to tell you is that you are blind to something else that is taking place in the conversation where you think you have authority. That conversation may be about how racialized women experience a particular kind of sexism. It may be about slut-shaming. It may be about the social construction of race, and the diminished value that is placed on racialized lives. It may be about genocide. Whatever it is, it’s not about you (or me), Individual White Person. But when you start whining like someone has personally insulted you because they aren’t stroking your ego to tell you that you’re doing everything right and you’re awesome, you are making it all about you. That’s going to make people angry at you, and only then will it actually be about you. At least, that is, until you have sufficiently derailed the entire conversation and effectively silenced everyone.

Remember the part where I mentioned that it’s not your fault that you have privilege, because you inherited it through no fault of your own? And that part where I mentioned that privilege as a force doesn’t care if someone yells at you for having it because they don’t? This is what I mean. It’s not a personal insult. It’s like making neutral observations about your appearance, such as “You’ve furnished your home.” Except in a conversation about someone else sitting on hand-carved solid wood furniture their great grandparents worked tirelessly to build with their own hands because a) that’s all that particular individual can acquire with what resources they inherited, and b) that’s a part of that person’s cultural tradition and relationship to their ancestors, you’re observed surrounded by brand new pre-fabricated (disposable) furniture from the IKEA catalogue. It’s not a personal insult, so when you try to defend yourself as though it is, you’re being a bad ally (and derailing the issue of racism).

Stop Whining About “Racist” People Of Colour

Remember the cars again? You’re driving along with the wind fucking your hair up, and you occasionally pass someone in a ditch, wondering why or how, as you continue to drive away and quickly reach a place where they aren’t visible to you any more. Well, sometimes racism is so destructive to individual people of colour (as it has been to multiple generations of First Nations people in Canada), that the reason they’re sitting in a ditch-car is because a bunch of white people drove past them in a long rapid-fire succession, smashing their windows with golf clubs and throwing road spike strips in front of the speeding target, so that they start to lose control of their vehicle or come to a full stop. And just as they make a move to jump out of it, some white person fires a rocket-launcher at the car. And another one drives a fucking Panzer tank over it. The car was destroyed or forced off the road by a series of white people who treat people of colour like shit, and now that person of colour is sitting, feeling overwhelmed by powerlessness, in the front seat of a shitbox that’s older than they are. That’s assuming they made it out of that series of horrendous racist experiences alive. But their story had to come from somewhere — the white supremacists who helped them get there aren’t going to tell it.

So say a person of colour just like them finally rebuilds through years of hard work, and you come along minding your Ps and Qs, and they yell at you or say something condescending, because you have privilege and seem to be blissfully unaware of it as you motor on right past them while their car is stalling. Again. All the whining in the world on your part or in your defence, about how much they’re hurting your feelings because you didn’t do that to them, isn’t going to help them heal and stop yelling. They have every right to be suspicious and angry. It’s because of suspicious and angry people of colour who aren’t afraid to trample all over the delicate sensibilities of the whites holding the tools of empowerment, that racialized people have any rights at all. Remember slavery? DUH! It hasn’t even been a hundred years since people of colour began the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, and at present, those civil rights are being ripped out of racialized hands, every time legislation is applied disproportionately and harshly against someone of colour (no matter the ethnic background of whoever their actions have hurt), while white people aren’t even charged for committing exactly the same crimes against people of colour.

Yes, there actually are people of colour who are racist, and yes some of them are especially racist against white people like you and me. Some have experienced so much racism, however, that the mere suspicion of it is enough to send them flying off the handle against it, or they have observed other people of colour experience so much of it, that they feel the responsibility (however misguided) to fight against it on behalf of all the people of colour who are sitting powerless in a trashed car somewhere in a ditch (or six feet under, while their kids are picking up parenting skills on the street). And it’s important to acknowledge that we’re all equally capable of being racist (fuck sake, my own family was racist against everyone except the “superior” North American white, and that meant half of them were even racist against themselves). But racism just doesn’t hurt everyone equally. Racism against people of colour is systemic — that means that unlike the somewhat rare interaction with individual people of colour who actually are racist against whites, where you or I can just walk away, systemic racism against people of colour is directly impacting their life in every direction they turn. It’s extremely problematic for a white person to whine about “racist” people of colour when they observe that equal attention isn’t paid to racism against them as racism against people of colour. And though it is also problematic, though to a lesser extent, when white people pretend that racism only ever affects people of colour, that’s really beside the point I’m making here. This is an attempt to call equal attention to grossly unequal disparities, and that makes you a bad ally.

Calling attention to “racist” people of colour shows that you either aren’t willing or aren’t ready to address the problem of racism. The presence of “racist” people of colour anywhere really has no bearing at all on the onus we all have to work against racism.

More On People Of Colour Being Condescending Towards Whites

I know what it sounds like to someone who isn’t paying very close attention, or who is just looking for ways to secure the right to be… well… right. It sounds like people of colour have a free pass to trample all over your white feelings and be condescending, which means that as a whitey in a conversation about racism, you’ll have an urge to claim victim status or hurt feelings as a result of an unpleasant interaction with a condescending person of colour who may or may not actually be an anti-white racist. But that’s really not the picture I’m focusing in on here. I keep bringing up the cars because I tend to be of the belief that if I could draw a cartoon about it, that would help; but my gift is with words, not MS Paint. Really, what the aim of my car analogy is, is to inspire empathy. And since you’re a whitey (just like me) and you (and I) have all this social privilege, right down to the default of human perception on everything being a whitey’s point-of-view, when you experience condescension it’s because people of colour have become impatient with you.

While people of colour have been actively and passively socialized to under-value or abandon their own cultural backgrounds in favour of assimilation with the white supremacy, they’ve also been actively and passively socialized to see white as the superior state of existence, and to see everything through white lenses. Being a person of colour and being in touch with one’s history, culture, and traditions, is not nearly as intuitive as you and I, white people, are made to believe by virtue of having experienced the same socialization. It takes work for a person of colour — especially a woman of colour — to put themselves in a position of self-empathy, observing the world through colour optics. They are so constantly held to the expectation of seeing everything through white optics and assimilating into white supremacy and holding whiteness up as the superior state of being, that they will most often find themselves listening to white voices. Our voices.

When you (or I), as a white person who opposes racism, fail to empathize with this aspect of a racialized person’s experience, and demand that impatient people of colour who are being condescending towards you (or I) try to empathize with how you (or I) feel, you are perpetuating a form of white supremacy that touches them in that place of emotional alienation and dissociation. That’s going to make already impatient people of colour lose their shit on you, or just stop talking to you all together. And if you tell them they need to be nicer to keep you interested in working against racism? Well, you are touching them in another place of life-long experience of white supremacy, where they have been told all their life that they are worth less as people, and proportionately less attention is due to their voice. If you want to take part in working against racism, you just have to get used to being made uncomfortable.

Remember at all times that people of colour have been forcibly made this uncomfortable for their entire lives. But you’re a white person, just like me, so it hasn’t happened to you (the same way it hasn’t quite happened to me, and I had to do a lot of work to understand why I feel personally wronged by the denial of the impact of racism on my own life). When you (or I) voluntarily put yourself there, you can just take a break from it whenever you need to (and so can I, to a limited extent).  You’re a white person (and so am I), and you’re not directly targeted by systemic racism against people of colour (nor am I). You and I aren’t directly targeted by white supremacists who smash in car windows when they see a person of colour driving the car, and that Panzer tank isn’t coming for us. When you or I engage directly with what it is to be targeted by systemic racism against people of colour, we are going to get directly uncomfortable, and whining about someone getting impatient or condescending is just called derailing. That’s something a bad ally does.

It’s Not Your Fault — Yet

Another really important thing about white supremacy and systemic racism against people of colour is that it isn’t your fault as an individual (you know, unless you’re actually a Neo-Nazi who enjoys curb-stomping brown-skinned people with red-laced black Garrison boots, or vandalizing properties you’ve determined are owned by Asian and Middle Eastern immigrants, for instance). But empathizing with a racialized person’s experience is not asking you to apologize for those experiences, so please don’t. That’s making it all about you again, and perpetuating the same form of white supremacy I just finished explaining. It’s also perpetuating something called white guilt, which is when a white person expresses paralysis from guilty feelings for racist shit they didn’t even personally do (or for the social privileges they inherited by virtue of their skin colour), rather than engaging directly with where their white privilege comes from or how they can let some of it go. That’s bad anti-racist ally territory. Like fucking furchtbar bad.

But now that you’re becoming conscious of how harmful racist behaviour actually is to those who are targeted by it (i.e., not you), you will only demonstrate how deeply you understand by eradicating racism and white supremacy from your own behaviours. If your white friend starts telling a “Holocaust joke”, stop them mid-sentence and tell them that their anti-Semitism is completely fucking unacceptable. If a racialized woman just finished disclosing to an entire women’s conference (including you) how she and other women in her community didn’t feel safe taking part in SLUTwalk because racialized women in particular are treated as being sexually available to men all the time, and as a result, they are still too close to the harm perpetuated by the idea of a “slut” to enthusiastically reclaim it like white women have, tell her you heard what she just said. Tell your white friends to stop introducing their racialized friends by their race when it isn’t relevant to the conversation (e.g., “Surely, you’ve heard of this guy. He’s a big Black guy.” — Yes, and how is the fact that he’s Black relevant to why I should have heard of him by now?). If you can’t address the white person who badgers the only person of colour in the room about their ethnicity, because it’s made you too uncomfortable to even speak to them, bring it up with everyone else when they are no longer present. Tell your white friends that doing “impressions” of people of colour isn’t fucking funny, and neither is their hipster racism or their racist-stereotype Halloween “costume”. The onus is on you (and I) to take an active part in thwarting racism until the day comes that it has become eradicated (and we’re a fucking long way off). If you don’t take an active part in fighting it, you are helping perpetuate it (either actively in taking part, or passively in exhibiting neutrality).

Stop Whitesplaining

If you are a white person and you want to help stop racism, and you’re comfortable with being uncomfortable through the process of empathy, I cannot stress the following point enough. Whitesplaining is when a white person is so used to being right all the time (especially in conversations with people of colour), that in a conversation with someone they perceive as being of mixed race or as a person of colour (whether or not they actually are one), they just ‘splain anything they can. And in a conversation  about racism and white supremacy, this is especially racist (and white supremacist). Whether you’re ‘splaining about how to inspire white people to be anti-racist allies, or how White People Are So “Racially Oppressed” Because Irish Slavery or We Aren’t Pagan Celts Any More Because Christianity, or (super bonus points for this one) There’s A Black President So STFU About Civil Rights Because You Already Have Them, what you’re really doing is speaking from the privileged assumption that you’re right all the time. Even about shit you are never directly impacted by and can take a break from any time it pleases you. This is especially nerve-grating when the introduction of the term “whitesplaining” comes into a conversation, and it is answered by a white person who says “that’s so racist!”

Grow a little backbone here. Be a strong ally. Sometimes the most important thing you can do is just stop talking and start listening — and not just listening for your turn to speak. I mean really listening to what’s being said, even if it’s something that makes you uncomfortable.

There Is No Ego In This, So Yours Isn’t Going To Get Stroked

People of colour don’t have a choice in whether or not racism impacts them. There is no reward to a racialized person’s ego in being told that race is “real”, so therefore it’s “perfectly legitimate” to make harmful generalizations about people on the basis of their racial/ethnic make-up, because it’s “just statistics” and statistics are uncaring and unfair, so just live with this heavy and unsolicited dose of “Race Realism” (which is pure horse shit, for the record). There is no ego-stroking for a person of colour for being born by complete chance into a white supremacist society that polices their bodies, that blames them for their experience of racially motivated violence and racism, or for having their potential as a human being actively diminished every time the world learns of yet another racialized individual who is involved in a violent racially motivated crime.

The list goes on, and the point remains the same — no one is going to hold your hand and wipe your tears away and give you an ego boost. You and I, as white people, cannot expect to get our egos stroked for taking part. That would be trying to make it all about us, by demanding an incentive system specifically for white people, which already exists anyway, and it’s called white privilege. Anti-racist allies take part in working against the problem out of a need for social justice — not for kicks. Justice is the reward. It takes hard work, and it comes in small doses. Which brings me to mention whitesplaining again: because of the amount of energy it requires to both experience and fight against racism and white supremacy, telling someone how to go about fighting it is pure donkey droppings (a relative of the horse shit that is race realism).

The Onus To Educate You Is On Your Own Shoulders

If any part of this blog entry is unclear to you, please do us both a favour and use the power of the internet to do an online search for it before you comment to ask me to educate you further. It’s the most powerful tool for knowledge and learning humankind has ever had at its disposal, and you are clearly using it right now to read this. Just open another tab and use some of the unusual language you find in this writing to do a search on Google. If you see “feminist”, “colour”, or “racialized”, there’s a high chance you’re using the right search terms. Especially if you see “bell hooks” (the author of Feminism is For Everybody, and many essays about her first hand experiences as a racialized woman). I have a particular kind of writing style that I’m fully conscious is not the easiest for everyone to understand all the time — I’ve also written nearly 4,400 words in this entry alone — so if something I’ve said isn’t clear, read about it in someone else’s voice. But for the sake of peat, do not hold me exclusively responsible for educating you, simply because I’ve started this conversation.

While I am happy and willing to have it with you, I don’t need to be held to the expectation of fulfilling your need to have your hand held. I’m not a person of colour and I did not consent to being your mentor. In fact, I do this writing because I want to. And you’re an adult using the internet. How fabulous and convenient!

And That’s Where I Have To End This

As I’ve mentioned before, this kind of writing is exhausting. And I wouldn’t have been able to write it at all, if it weren’t for the $50,000 and four years I’ve spent in post-secondary, educating myself in how to express the contents of my brain without resorting to a string of profanity and misdirected anger. While I was being socialized as white (and only white, despite the fact that I am also Caucasian — which isn’t the same as white — and Jewish by ethnicity), some of the first books I chose of my own volition were about aboriginal cultures in North America. While I was being socialized as white, I was also learning about what the words prejudice and discrimination mean, and taking a moment to think about the racist shit my parents would spew on a daily basis. And now I have been watching a fucking lot of people of colour experiencing social oppression on the basis of their race/ethnicity, the way I have experienced social oppression on the basis of my genetic sex. And I still hear about even more racialized people’s experiences every day. While I can almost completely empathize with any white person who is struggling to wrap their head around racism in the abstract sense (about the closest any anti-racist ally is going to get), my head is full of memories of feeling like a stranger in my natal home because I just could not take up the same bigotry as the rest of my family did. And I hope you don’t, either.

4 thoughts on “Whites Who Oppose Racism: Here’s How To Stop Doing It Wrong

  1. Pingback: Pour les blancs qui s’opposent au racisme : comment arrêter d’avoir tout faux! | Ms. DreydFul

  2. I think it is much easier to talk about healing racism starting from a Christian point of view as Martin Luther King did. It’s really talking about solidarity, and true solidarity is to love your neighbor as yourself and always seek reconciliation. And solidarity means involving yourself and perhaps even putting yourself in danger. And logic can work on our minds but then it is all to easy to be easily scared away from the fight if we have no spiritual reservoirs to help us through. Turn the other cheek. Let he who is without sin throw the first stone. I really think Jesus said it best. It’s a shame that Christians and Christianity are a group who have become feared through being connected to ‘the religious right.’ Because the most powerful words I know in the battle for human dignity were spoken by Jesus.

    • I think you best do some more introspection on what exactly the phrase “turn the other cheek” is intended to mean. This post has literally nothing to do with Christianity, and everything to do with recognizing that hearing the righteous anger of racially marginalized people without taking it as a personal slight is key to reconciliation.

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